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Northam looks to amend driver privilege card legislation, ban on strip searches of children; approves ranked-choice voting and payday lending reform

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam is asking the General Assembly to amend legislation allowing driver privilege cards for people in the country illegally in a way that would make the cards look more like a regular driver’s license.

The legislature approved last month bills that featured a compromise between the more progressive House of Delegates and moderate Senate that allowed the cards to look like driver’s licenses on the front and disclose their special nature on the back. Northam wants to get rid of language on the back of the cards that says “Driver Privilege Card: not valid ID for voting or public benefits purposes.”

Northam’s proposal also asks the Department of Motor Vehicles to make cards that are “identical in appearance to the restriction on the back of a limited-duration license, permit or special identification card,” which, if backed by lawmakers, would be closer to the House-approved version of the bill.

“Governor Northam is deeply grateful to advocates and legislators for their hard work on this,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “The Governor’s amendment would ensure that the physical design of a driver privilege card cannot be used as a method to single out and discriminate against certain Virginians.”

Monica Sarmiento, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said Monday that the group is still reviewing the language of Northam’s amendments but it supports the driver’s licenses version of the legislation.

“We don’t want people to be discriminated against,” Sarmiento said.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization, found in a January report that between 124,500 and 160,800 people “would be newly licensed within two years if Virginia expanded access regardless of immigration status.”

The legislature will take up Northam’s proposal during next week’s veto session.

Virginia voters could soon have the option of ranking candidates in elections instead of choosing only one.

Northam on Saturday — the final day for him to act on legislation — signed a bill from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, to implement a pilot program that gives localities the choice of using ranked-choice voting, a practice that is gaining popularity across the U.S.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates from their most favorite to least. A candidate who gets a majority of support of the first-choice votes wins the election. But if no candidate wins a majority in that first round of voting, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated. That candidate’s supporters have their votes transferred to the person they selected as their second choice.

The process — informally called an “instant runoff” — continues until a candidate wins a majority.

The bill takes effect July 1, 2021.

“States have always been the laboratories of democracy,” Hudson said Tuesday. “We want elections with broad participation from diverse candidates and voters. Ranked choice voting helps achieve that goal.”

Hudson added: “It helps voters express our diverse views at the ballot box and elect leaders that invest in real coalition building. I’m excited to continue the work by helping our cities and counties roll out (ranked-choice voting) pilots in the years to come.”

Several U.S. cities have ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. New York City is set to start using it in 2021.

Maine uses it statewide to elect a governor and members of Congress.

Legislation to curb predatory lending in Virginia could become law more quickly than anticipated, under a request by Northam.

Virginia lawmakers earlier this year passed legislation that places limits on interest rates for short-term or payday loans at 36%, and caps fees for late payments at $20 per month.

The legislation, House Bill 789 and Senate Bill 421, also caps loan processing fees at $150.

In a series of amendments, Northam is requesting that the legislation go into effect on Jan. 1, instead of July 1 of 2021, as passed by the legislature.

The move was celebrated by the Virginia Poverty Law Center and other consumer protection groups, which have argued that predatory payday and car title loans target the poor and trap them in financially precarious situations.

“We’ve been fighting for years to reform predatory lending, and it’s a relief that we can finally put this legislative fight to rest,” said Jay Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, in a statement.

Short-term lenders, meanwhile, told lawmakers throughout the regular 2020 legislative session that the proposed reforms could drive many of them out of business.

The legislation was introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.

“This legislation was critical before COVID-19 started impacting our communities. Now, even more Virginians may find themselves in financial distress and vulnerable to predatory lending practices,” Bagby said in a statement.

Northam is proposing a change to legislation approved by the General Assembly banning strip searches of children, a practice that came under public scrutiny after an 8-year-old girl was searched while visiting her father at a correctional facility in Dillwyn.

Northam’s amendment would add an exception to the policy, allowing minors who are under arrest to be strip searched if the officer reasonably believes they have a weapon.

In the aftermath of the Dillwyn incident, Northam ordered the suspension of strip searches of children at the state’s correctional facilities.

The legislation sought to enact the order into law, banning anyone under the age of 18 from being searched. It exempts children committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice or an adult correctional facility.

It was introduced by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, as House Bill 1544.


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